Breakthrough in Syrian Crisis Depends on Iran's Nuclear Program

Article Summary
Intense diplomatic moves by regional and international players concerned with the situation in Syria indicate that the crisis there has reached a threshold and may soon “explode.” And yet despite the instability of the current situation, a resolution to the Syrian crisis will only be possible once the issue of Iranian nuclear weapons has been clarified, writes Sami Kleib.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wanted his latest speech to convey a message of both firmness and political openness. He also wanted it to project the [image] that the regime remains powerful in the face of the strong winds blowing at it from all directions. [Assad’s speech] coincided with the escalation of threats between Iran and the United States, and the voicing of disagreement from [many Arab League observers] over the [efficiency] of the Arab [League] observer [mission, tasked with monitoring the situation in Syria]. The situation reached a critical point when fellow French [journalist] Gilles Jacquier fell as a martyr to his journalistic courage [on January 11 in Homs]. He is worthy of great respect.

The West only paid attention to the aspects of Assad's speech which pertained to security issues. The same went for the Syrian opposition, as well as the Arab and Islamic countries that support it. An increasing number of people have mentioned that the political horizon [in Syria] is dim, and the Arab observer mission is useless. There have also been increasing calls to withdraw the observers [from Syria]. The observers will most likely be withdrawn sooner or later, but what is required in the coming weeks is to increase pressure [on the Syrian regime] so that the issue may be brought to the table again at the UN Security Council. It is imperative that the regime not feel it has made any headway at either the Arab or international levels.

Washington and France were among the first to condemn Assad's speech, though they were soon echoed by several Arab [states]. Around this time, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held two separate meetings with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jabr Al Thani and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. [These were followed by] other meetings between William Burns, the second highest ranking official in the US State Department, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This was the first time [direct meetings between the US administration and the Muslim Brotherhood were made public]. Jeffrey Feltman, senior adviser to Secretary of State [Clinton], had previously paved the way for [these meetings] through [frequent visits to the region]. Some of these visits’ key objectives were to discuss the [the situation in] Iran and Syria as well as the shape of the future relationship [between these two countries] and Israel and the United States.

Assad's talk of [reshaping] the government before elections by inviting various [political forces of the opposition] to participate was not well received by those states that have been calling for his [resignation] for some time now. However, in doing so the Syrian President presented his Russian allies with an additional [bargaining] card. His propositions to [reshape the government and hold elections] were presented as part of a genuine reform project. Assad thus [indirectly] addressed those who have been saying that he [consistently] promises much but does little. However, despite [Assad’s intentions], his speech fell on deaf ears. Once again, the spotlight was on the issue of his [security-based approach in quelling the rebellion].

The approach of security is still [being employed by the regime]. Assad even confirmed this. [In his speech], the Syrian president sought to throw the ball of political reform into the court of the opposition. [Assad asserted that] if it refuses to respond to his call, it would imply that the opposition is not ready for dialogue. But Assad did not stop there: He decided to legitimize his speech with the [impression of] popular support. Ignoring advice from his security detail to refrain from appearing in public, Assad appeared alongside his wife and children in the Umayyad Square [in central Damascus]. In the square, he told his supporters: “We will win. This is the last stage of their conspiracy. We will make sure it will result in their demise and the end of their schemes.” [Assad’s] supporters [considered his speech] a demonstration of [the regime’s] strength, while the opposition said it was a reflection of its weakness. However, this is not the point. What is more important is that Assad's speech comes at a time when the [Persian] Gulf and Mediterranean Sea are swarming with US and Russian naval maneuvers.

The turbulent seas have been accompanied by an escalation in Iranian rhetoric. Tehran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, and it has been revealed that it is continuing with its nuclear enrichment [activities]. This behavior was preceded by increased talk of deploying US troops in the region - including in Israel.

These developments suggest that the crisis has peaked. Now, the situation will either [totally explode], or a deal [will be struck]. Both possibilities are likely. The flaring-up [of the current situation] is as unsettling as the successive steps [that will be necessary] to restore calm. Russia heads the list of [countries seeking to prevent escalation in the region]. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has gone as far as to vow to avenge any unilateral action on the part of the West. Russia seeks to curb any impulsive tendencies to aggravate the situation - tendencies that are being fed by Israel in both public and [private]. Russia has reiterated its warnings against any military action in the region. By claiming that it sees no evidence that Iran is developing a nuclear bomb, Moscow would pull the rug from under the West’s feet. Many still remember the US administration’s fabrications and claims that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

[Meanwhile], Turkey is being exposed to increased temptation [as both the West and other regional powers court its favor]. The European Union has called on Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to join its meetings on Iran and Syria. In an attempt to [obstruct the EU’s move], Iran has intensified [the frequency of] its meetings and contact with Ankara despite the two countries’ differences over [the issue of] Syria.

[On the other hand], Qatar is sensing imminent danger. It has every right to feel concerned about a potential military strike on Iran because it lies directly in the sights of Iran’s cannon. From Washington, the Qatari Prime Minister [Sheikh Bin Jabr Al Thani] stressed the need to reduce the level of tension in the Gulf. Doha wants to become a special kind of mediator between Tehran and Washington, but it does not exclude the possibility that the situation may deteriorate.

At the height of the crisis, French journalist Gilles Jacquier was killed in Homs [on Wednesday January 11]. This 40-year old fellow journalist and new father of two girls was known for his exceptional courage throughout his journalistic career. He had put his life in jeopardy several times before - in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and now finally in Syria. His killing will be seen as a pivotal moment in the Syrian crisis, and his blood will likely become [a symbol, like] Uthman's shirt [this is a reference to the bloodstained shirt of the third Muslim Caliph, Uthman Bin Affan, which was carried into battle by his supporters]. The Syrian authorities will not be able to blame the insurgents for the death of Jacquier. If they do so, they will face accusations that they are actually masterminding these killings. However, if the winds begin to blow in the opposite direction and [all parties start to believe that de-escalation is necessary], it will become possible to blame unidentified gunmen.

The whole world has condemned the killing of our fellow French journalist. Washington, the European Union and France have asked the [Syrian] authorities to provide details on the circumstances [surrounding the incident]. It is remarkable that no one condemned the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist which took place the same day. Washington only denied being involved in killing the young scientist. The US understands that Iran’s accusations against it and Israel signify that [Iran] largely blames the US [for this killing], and that an Iranian response may follow. Tehran can easily retaliate against Washington, but it is taking its time in responding to Israel. It is probably [waiting for] the right time and place, and it [may perhaps call on] Hezbollah to [go through with] numerous planned operations in due time. [Iran has always used Hezbollah to strike against Israel], although circumstances in the region have now changed.

Clouds continue to gather in the region as the electoral races [in the West] heat up. [Candidates in the US presidential elections are again raising] the subject of the US defeat in Iraq. The issue of [the prison] at Guantanamo - which US President Barack Obama has so far failed to close despite promising to do so - is again open for discussion. Qatar is brokering a US settlement with the Taliban, although it is making little progress and the outcome is so far unpredictable. In France, amid heated preparations for the upcoming elections, there has been a rise in partisan criticism of President Nicolas Sarkozy. [This is all taking place in the context] of the West struggling to resolve its debt crisis.

Ten months after the Syrian crisis began, Assad wants to prove that he is capable of wielding the dual batons of heavy security and political settlement simultaneously. [A political solution of course would take place] on the condition that it be [forged] under his authority and sponsorship. However, the [Syrian] opposition and several countries want to see [Assad] overthrown, albeit for different reasons. Assad’s attempts to [open up politically] have failed to bring the opposition to the table, even though this time he opened the door to all [parties].

[The struggle over] Assad has become part of a regional and international war. The link between Damascus, Tehran and Hezbollah has become stronger than ever in the war between the two regional axes. The situation will either explode, or a deal will be struck. The region is boiling. Managing the crisis seems impossible, and thus poses a danger to the entire region. Everything will hinge on the resolution of the Iranian [nuclear] question. Consequently, a solution or breakthrough to the Syrian crisis is not expected [to take place] before the picture of [Iran’s nuclear ambitions] becomes clearer. The real danger - and potential breakthrough - lie with Iran. The current situation seems to suggest [imminent] danger rather than compromise. Previous dealings with Iran during US elections suggest that many developments will take place under the table. A beleaguered Iran can still raise the price of oil merely by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. It is also able to raise fears among American voters, negatively impacting Obama. Nonetheless, so far it has avoided being dragged into war because it realizes that he who initiates the next war will be its loser. For his part, [Barack Obama] is well aware that any misstep could end his every hope to return to the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, Israel is intensifying its efforts to halt the Iranian [nuclear] program and eliminate Hezbollah. [According to Israeli] Defense Minister Ehud Barak, [the aforementioned] can be achieved by bringing down the Assad regime, especially given that the Americans obtained guarantees from the [Muslim] Brotherhood in Egypt that it seeks to preserve treaties [with Israel] for the foreseeable future. [In view of all of these factors], how can we expect a solution to the Syrian crisis any time soon? Escalation will continue - and become more rapid - for quite some time. War is not easy, and [no one is yet ready for a deal]; thus each side will now become ever more bellicose.

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